Scientific output drops in the heat, say economists

Heat could affect scientific innovation and productivity Copyright: Flickr/steve phillips

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Rising temperatures could impede scientific research in poor countries, say economists.

Research into the impact of temperature on publication rates, part of a wider study on how temperature affects economic output, concludes that poor countries could suffer "substantial negative impact from future climate change".

To investigate the impact of temperature on innovation the team assessed the number and quality of scientific papers published from 1980–2003.

Poor countries produced fewer scientific papers in hot years — a rise of one degree Celsius was associated with a nine per cent drop in the number of papers published.

This suggests that higher temperatures impede innovation and that over time this could widen the gap between rich and poor countries.

The research identified an effect on scientific innovation but did not identify the cause, says Benjamin Jones, an associate professor at the US-based Northwestern University and one of the study’s authors.

Jones speculated that one possibility reaches back to the eighteenth century French philosopher Montesquieu’s claim that higher temperatures directly weaken people’s productivity.

"There is some micro-level evidence in the literature, cited in our paper, which suggests that physical and cognitive productivity do decline at high temperatures. It is therefore possible that one witnesses such a productivity effect on innovative output," Jones told SciDev.Net.

Jones suggested that rich countries do not suffer from a correlated decrease in science production in hot weather because they have more climate control technologies such as air conditioning, and because rich countries tend to be colder to start with.

He added that it is difficult to determine whether the effects are due to being poor or already hot.

Gavin Chait, a South African-based risk analyst and strategist with consulting firm Whythawk, told SciDev.Net that the relationship is likely only to be correlative, not causative.

The study also found that a temperature rise of one degree Celsius correlated with  a 1.1 per cent decrease in economic growth in the same year.

The work was presented at the annual meeting of the American Economics Association earlier this month (3–5 January).

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